On the one hand, it is absolutely ridiculous that a quality film like Cold in July gets so little exposure on the big screen. Given limited release at the end of May last year, the movie was pulled from theaters 10 weeks later after a total domestic gross of $433, 223.
On the other hand (thanks to its recent debut on home video), you can see the film for a fraction of what you might’ve forked over at your local Cineplex. The producers’ and distributor’s loss is your gain.
Based on a 1989 novel by prolific East Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July is a crime thriller along the lines of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and John Dahl’s Red Rock West, with the major exception that this neo-noir exercise has no femme fatale or romantic triangle. Instead, the focus is on two fathers trying to do the right thing in terms of their very different sons.
When Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a man who’s burglarizing his house, he sets into motion a series of events that eventually has the mild-mannered picture-framer taking on the unwelcome role of vigilante killer. Repelled by the initial notoriety attending his act of self-defense, Richard is unexpectedly confronted by his victim’s father (Sam Shepard), tough ex-con Russell, who threatens revenge on Richard’s young son. And he’s just the kind of man who can do it, police protection or not.
However, the two fathers soon come to realize the dead man is not who they thought he was. Enlisting the aid of private investigator Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), the men begin to unravel a complicated web involving police cover-up and a ruthless porno ring that specializes in snuff films. Totally on their own and outside the aegis and protection of the law, the unlikely trio is up against killers, one of whom is Russell’s son.
Co-written and directed by Jim Mickle, Cold in July has tension and suspense to spare, with utterly convincing performances from the three stars. Hall is completely different from the cool, prepossessed serial killer he played for seven years on Dexter. As Richard Dane, he’s a fish out of water, a loving family man trying to atone for a guiltless act of self-defense. Sam Shepard (who, like Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, is never less than superb) is a tortured man, trying to atone for his own failure as a father.
The biggest surprise in the cast is Don Johnson as the wild, somewhat wacky Jim Bob Luke, a man who knows his grim business and has absolutely nothing to atone for. A colorful character, Jim Bob makes appearances in some of Lansdale’s other books as well.
This is director Mickle’s fourth feature film, following three good (and each very different) horror films: Mulberry Street (2006), Stake Land (2010), and We Are What We Are (2013). Unlike many other genre directors, Mickle evokes complex characterization in his films. Cold in July is not a horror movie, but a mainstream thriller, its complicated characters nonetheless confronting horrors of the realistic variety.
Joe R. Lansdale, the Elmore Leonard of East Texas, must have liked what Mickle did with his book. The two are currently working on a proposed TV series featuring Hap and Leonard, the unlikely heroes of several other Lansdale books. That’s good news for his many fans, like me.